Not so social media

POSTED: 04/16/15 6:28 PM

You don’t have to be a celebrity a la Rihanna to become the target of social media users (other labels than user come to mind here, but for starters, we’ll keep it polite). If you live in a small community like, say, Sint Maarten, and the top of your head is slightly above the ground, you already qualify. You could be a restaurant owner, a politician, a high ranking civil servant, a journalist or a simple police officer – if you show your mug in the public domain, social media users are right there to do whatever they do.

We know all about these practices in Sint Maarten and the funny thing is – nobody has ever done anything about it. Least said, soonest forgotten (mended would be a wrong verb here). Ignoring the haters is probably the best medicine, because nothing pleases social media users more than seeing their tweet or their post causing a firestorm in mainstream media.

In Spain, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has about had it with these shenanigans. It is going to prosecute citizens who posted insulting and hurtful tweets about the Catalonian passengers of the Germanwings Airbus A320 airplane that crashed on March 24 in the French Alps after the pilot allegedly deliberately downed the craft, sending his 149 passengers to their death.

Dozens of Twitter-users reacted to the crash by venting their sentiment about the relationship between Spaniards and Catalonians. “Fortunately again fewer Catalonians,” read one tweet.

The body of the Belgian Socialist Minister Steve Stevaert had not even been found after he had jumped in a canal when a manager of the supermarket chain Delhaize tweeted that as far as he was concerned “all reds could jump into the canal.” The company distanced itself from the tweet and announced measures.

Stevaert did not jump just like that into the canal. On the morning of his death, he learned that he was going to be prosecuted for rape – and he was unable to handle that.

A good friend of Stevaert, a professor at the Free University of Brussels, vented his sorrow on Facebook by reprimanding the woman who had filed the rape-complaint against his friend: “For a rape you go to the police immediately, if necessary the day after. Not three years later.” In this case, the university got a near heart attack and distanced itself from the statement.

Social media do not always bring out the best in people Ger Groot writes in an op-ed in Trouw – and we agree with him one hundred percent. The professor who wrote the Face book-post got lots of mud in his face from other social media users. “This way people are able to keep each other quite busy,” Groot notes drily. “Some souls get damaged in the process of course. These media are hardly social.”

The Belgian singer Stromae made a video clip about this issue. Not about the clumsiness of social media, but about their voracity. They penetrate everywhere and they destroy everything that is beautiful in someone’s personal life by making it public – mercilessly.

Then Groot makes an apt remark: “The user (of social media) who lets himself be charmed by this is nothing more than the fodder the monster uses to fatten itself.”

A little survey of local Facebook-pages shows how true this is. From the comfort their invisible position behind a screen offers, people go for each other’s throat in a way they would not dare to deploy in, say, a pub, or at a party where they are face to face with the target of their ill-guided (and often nonsensical) wrath.

There is of course a flip side to this negative assessment of social media. Twitter can be a valuable source of information and Facebook gives at least some people the feeling that they are connected with their digital ‘friends.’ Still, these media do have their limitations. Twitter does not work well for discussions and at times intimate revelations on Facebook are not exactly fit for global distribution. Ignoring these limitations is at times costly.

Just ask Justine Sacco, an employee of and American Communications Company. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Oops: Sacco sent the tweet just before boarding her plane. When she arrived in South-Africa she was trending and it did not take long before she lost her job.

Social media camouflage and deny their limitations to the best of their abilities. What makes them so attractive is at the same time their danger Groot writes: their speed and their directness. Place or time does not hinder the power of their communication. Every delay and distance is eliminated from the hyper nervous rapid reactions to every post. They hit the message of the target immediately.

Sacco’s story is not an exception – it is the tip of an iceberg. Though of course, not all Twitter-users are bastards. The controversial Dutch artist Tinkebell (real name Katinka Simonse) turned her dead cat into a handbag. She received truckloads of hate mail about it. Instead of firing back, Tinkebell went in search of the people behind these mails. She found that most of them were decent ladies and gentlemen who had wished the most awful things on her. And these hate mail writers were utterly shocked when they realized that the artist had discovered their identity.

With a little bit of self-control they could have spared themselves the embarrassment, Groot notes: “First write in a Word-document what you want is bothering you and leave it alone for a couple of hours or even until the next day. The next day it appears quite often that it is not worth the trouble, that it is unfit for others to read, or both. But hardly anybody is that thoughtful. The medium itself prevents that.”

Old means of communication always had something stand-offish. But our account on Twitter or Facebook, that is us. We are on the sending and on the receiving end. The slap in the face could his us at any moment and it usually touches the most private details of our lives.

Governments with good intentions recently started an awareness campaign (indeed, not in St. Maarten, though that does not immediately mean that our government is lacking good intentions – it is just slow). The campaign notes that behind every Twitter-address there is a human being like you and me. With Groot, we doubt very much whether this campaign is going to make any difference. We feel more for the initiative of the Spanish prosecutor’s office: take those who cross the line to court. Let them clean the streets for hundred hours, or work in a mental healthcare facility.

Of course, that will never happen in Sint Maarten: the prosecutor’s office has better things to do than chasing social media terrorists and then end up with a measly sentence that makes no impression whatsoever.

If the correction won’t come from law enforcement, are we then all lost? Not entirely. Some celebrities are so fed up with social media that they have closed down their accounts and returned to real life. Not a bad idea, also for people who are less famous.

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